This story starts when I was seventeen and if the truth be told, even more full of myself than most seventeen-year-olds. There I was a senior in high school and on an airplane flying from Columbus to Cleveland. It was a very big deal; but before I get too far ahead of myself, a little perspective is necessary.
At my high school, I had some status: class president, a good student, a drummer in the marching band and teacher’s pet, at least for a couple of the teachers. Life was good, at least as good as it gets when you are seventeen.
Let me sharpen the perspective. My senior class had a grand total of 63 students and my hometown had 900 residents, assuming everyone was home. We did have one traffic light and a courthouse, if you were thinking there was nothing special about the place.
It happened that one of those couple of teachers I mentioned was responsible for the plays that were presented by students once or twice each school year. My teacher’s pet status partially depended on having a role whenever it was play time. I still don’t quite understand how being in those plays seemed to automatically mean that I would also participate in speech contests, but it did.
Well, one of those contests involved writing and memorizing a speech on democracy. The writing part was tough but successful, with a lot of extra help from the history teacher. – No, pet status with the history teacher was not in the cards. – . At any rate, the speech got written and the memorizing part was no harder than learning a part in one of the plays. I was ready for the contest.
I was to compete in one of the seven districts in the state. I think there were three or four rounds leading to the final round. You do recall that I was full of myself, don’t you? I think I had just assumed that I would probably win, so I was neither surprised nor impressed When I was given the democracy medal at a school assembly.
That should suffice for perspective. My mother and I were flying to Cleveland for the state contest. Two points are enough to let you get the full picture. First, the contest was in a downtown hotel where I had to wait for a half hour or so until the contest started. I was sitting with the other contestants who seemed to me to all be sophisticated city kids. Does fish out of water clarify the picture? I think it was my first experience with being totally intimidated.
Second – and here’s the kicker – I left a full paragraph out of the middle of my speech. And to make the kick even straighter to the gut, one of the judges told my mother after the contest that I would have easily won, but omitting the paragraph was an automatic disqualification. No trip to Dallas to the national contest for me.
I never made it to Dallas, but I did get another crack at Cleveland. Granted, it took twenty years, but my day came. I was invited to give a presentation to 200 or so sophisticated city folks at the very same hotel where I blew my chance to make the trip to Dallas. I have given talks from Las Vegas to Boston; but none were quite as sweet as my return to that downtown hotel in Cleveland.
I’m probably supposed to draw some profound conclusion or share a witty insight from my teenage stumble but nothing profound or witty comes to mind. Perhaps you might expect to learn how much I learned and grew from my humbling Cleveland experience. Sorry to disappoint. The best I can do is to assure you that now and then the stars do align, as they did for me the day I returned to Cleveland. – Count on it.
Now you know so there you go.